Feast Day

Feast Day October 4, 2005

Today is the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, who died 779 years ago yesterday.

Another holy fool is being honored this week in Wilmington, Del., where residents yesterday gathered to remember William Drew Asnis.

Known to his neighbors as "Prayin' Bill," Asnis lived on the street, offering prayers for the city and for everyone he encountered there.

Bill's sister, Christine Claire Archer, said that 15 years ago her brother, a graduate of Cornell University, left his teaching job at University of California-Santa Cruz, where he taught creative writing, and migrated east, settling in Wilmington.

He gave up all his earthly possessions to minister to the downtrodden on the streets of Wilmington. Bill also gave up contact with his Jewish father and Episcopalian mother in Tennessee

For years he prayed at Fifth and Madison streets before moving his street-corner ministry to Hilltop.

"Bill prayed for everybody," said Westside Neighborhood Coalition president David Gwyn. "He'd be praying right in the middle of the street. He was well-respected. Everybody loved Bill."

The once-brilliant professor suffered a breakdown and became a troubled itinerant. He also became, to many on the streets where he lived, an instrument of God's peace.

Unlike St. Francis and Prayin' Bill, I have not abandoned my home and all my earthly possessions. I have good reasons for this, but I also have plenty of bad ones. Not so much reasons as excuses, really.

That's not to say that I feel called, or compelled, or obligated, to imitate their example, but such bold actions did make it unambiguously clear that they had entered the fray. They got in the game. They took sides.

Frederick Buechner describes what I'm trying to get at here in The Alphabet of Grace:

My interlocutor is a student who under various names and in various transparent disguises has attended all the religion classes I have ever taught and listened to all my sermons and read every word I've ever written, published and unpublished, including diaries and letters. He is on the thin side, dark, brighter than I am and knows it. He is without either guile or mercy. …

The interlocutor speaks. He is sitting at the opposite end of the Harkness table where I teach, as if to raise the question which is the head of this table and which is the foot. He tips back his chair. "You mean you think you should be down there in the thick of it, right? Salving your conscience in one of the more plausible ghettos? Slogging it out beside Spock and Coffin. Marching on the Pentagon. Delivering turkeys at Christmastime. The trouble is you don't have the face for it, sir. You don't have either the face for it or the guts for it. If you ever left this room and entered the real war, you know what you'd end up doing, don't you?"

I know, of course, but I shake my head. I would rather have him be the one to say it.

"You'd end up rolling bandages," he says.

"Maybe I should be rolling bandages," I say.

There's nothing wrong with rolling bandages. God knows, more bandages are always needed, and someone has got to roll them. Maybe I should be down there in the thick of it, rolling bandages.

Instead, of course, I've chosen to contribute by doing … other things. By, you know, um, working within the system to bring about change. So I spend a decade or so on a magazine that never gets off the ground. I work for a newspaper. I add another chapter to a ridiculous review of a ridiculous book. I write, read, act, listen, sort the recycling and pay the bills.

And all the while the interlocutor sits down there at the head of the table, half-grinning. "You do what you do," he says. "I'm sure someone else will roll the bandages."

Anyway, a prayer on the Feast of St. Francis:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;

where there is hatred, let me sow love;

when there is injury, pardon;

where there is doubt, faith;

where there is despair, hope;

where there is darkness, light;

and where there is sadness, joy.

Grant that I may not so much seek

to be consoled as to console;

to be understood, as to understand,

to be loved as to love;

for it is in giving that we receive,

it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,

and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

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20 responses to “Feast Day”

  1. Jesus Mary Joseph and other expressions of profane disbelief —
    “He’d be praying right in the middle of the street.
    Matthew chapter 5. Right after the Lord’s prayer. Criminy.

  2. Er, sorry, that might not have been the most appropriate comment for a stranger to leave on an obituary, especially one capped by the beautiful quotation from Francis.
    But verily I say unto you, the people who chain themselves to B-52s have their reward. I’ve always thought there were lots more things to focus on worrying about than living up to what seems like their example.
    But it also sounds like Bill Asnis was a remarkable man, and I’m sorry to learn of him only after he has passed. Rest in peace, Bill.

  3. You wake us up with your writing. And sorting the recycling is one of those small important things.
    Thanks for posting the St. Francis prayer. It’s one that speaks to me despite my unbelief.

  4. Darn saints and other moral exemplars! They’re always making the rest of us look bad, with their “love” and “faith” and “pacifism” and “sacrifice” and “charity” and “asceticism” and “moral courage” and “cheerfulness in the face of the yawning abyss of despair.”
    Still, even to this Protestant, St. Francis rules. Who else could preach to birds, tame wolves and still say, in later years, “Don’t make a saint of me too soon — I am still perfectly capable of fathering a child”?

  5. Today, as it happens, is also Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, so it seems appropriate to respond with a quote from a Chasidic rabbi. Rabbi Zusia once said, “When I am called before the Throne of Judgement, I will not be asked, ‘Why were you not Moses?’, but ‘Why were you not Zusia?'” Though unrelated to the day I’m also reminded of a story a famous actor told. It was many years ago, and I’ve forgotten the actors name and will probably get some of the details wrong, but here it is. Early in his career, the actor was given a chance to audition for one of the most highly regarded Shakespeare festivals in the world. It was an incredible opportunity and he was determined to make the most of it, so he got a copy of Laurence Olivier’s performance of Hamlet. He spent every waking moment studying Olivier’s performance until he had it down cold. When the day of the audition came he performed Hamlet’s soliloquy perfectly, just as he had learned it. The director wasn’t impressed. “We’re not looking for Olivier,” he said. “We already have Olivier. Come back tomorrow and do another piece, but this time as yourself.” The actor did as he was asked. He won a part in the festival, and went on to have a brilliant career.
    God doesn’t need another St. Francis, or if he does, he can call one. If God has called you to be a new St. Francis and you’ve refused, then perhaps you have reason to reproach yourself, but it seems to me, our job as humans is simply to be open to God’s promptings, not to anticipate them.
    Rosh Hashanah also marks the beginning of the Days of Awe, the 8-day period culminating in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. During this period Jews are supposed to reflect on their lives, to consider where they have fallen short and commit themselves to doing better. It sounds as if the story of Prayin’ Bill and the Feast of St. Francis has inspired in you a similar reflection. Maybe you should take a tip from Judaism and devote whatever time you can in the next week to tracing the source of your discontent. If it turns out to be merely vanity (unhappiness at not being given a more heroic role) then perhaps you can use that energy you’re wasting in self-recrimination to play your own role more completely and whole-heartedly. If it turns out that there really is something lacking in your life or the way you’ve been living it, then perhaps you can discover what it is, and practice doing better in the future.
    I apologize for all this preaching. I’m certainly not advanced enough on my own spiritual path to be giving others advice on theirs. But a Zen Master once described students practicing together as potatoes being washed in the same bucket. In the process of washing the potatoes bump against one another and dislodge bits of dirt, so that each potato contributes to cleaning its neighbors. You knocked a bit of dirt from me with your post. I hope I can return the favor.

  6. Brava, Beth. My sentiments exactly, but phrased far better than had been forming in my head. Thank you.

  7. “I write…”
    When Thomas Murton became a monk he was disappointed when the head of his monastary ordered him to write. But there were others – with other gifts – to cook and clean, to plant and harvest. Merton’s gifts were from God and determined his vocation.
    I don’t see enough use of these gifts in the catholic church. Someone needs to learn, someone needs to listen.
    “I add another chapter to a ridiculous review of a ridiculous book.”
    Never underestimate the importance of this work. “The only alternative to good creed is bad creed.” Exposing the gangrenous necrosis afflicting the American limb of the Bride of Christ is the only thing that will save her. Souls are being lost as people are being misled by the wolves wearing sheep’s clothing. (Matthew 7:15)
    God bless you, Fred. I’ll keep you in my prayers.

  8. I don’t know what the requirements are for “good enough,” but I get a lot out of reading writing that makes me reflect, and I get even more out of reading comments like those here by others who have reflected and responded. My sincerest thanks to all involved.

  9. The slacktivist has often taught me to love, pardon, belive, hope, console, and understand more than before. The bandage-needy will benefit much on that day that he is called to roll the bandages, but until that day I am thankful for the opportunity to learn bandage-rolling from Fred.

  10. Fred, I have only this to add: none of us knows, or perhaps will ever know, the effect we are having in the world and on the people we bump into.
    Do what you can and let God worry about the rest.

  11. Great! Can I win admiration by praying for people instead of, you know, doing anything useful for them?

  12. Uh, it seems pretty clear to me that this person wasn’t a holy man but a man with schizophrenia. Having known quite a few of these folks, let me tell you it’s EASY to be “deeply religious” when you quite literally hear voices at all waking hours.
    This reminds me of a person who tried to convert me (or rather, RE-convert me) to Christianity by telling me, “All over the Third World, societies are embracing this faith.” To which I responded, “Great; so you you think we should embrace the same beliefs as the poorest people on earth?”
    So no, I’m sorry Fred: I just don’t see this or any other penniless street person as being some noble spiritual hero worthy of my emulation.

  13. [unrelated]
    “And all the while the interlocutor sits down there at the head of the table, half-grinning.”
    I don’t know if you’re a John D. MacDonald fan, Fred, but that sentence is very like one he’d have used, probably in one of the McGee books. And that’s a compliment.

  14. It is easy to admire Francis of Assisi, to measure yourself against him as a Christian and admit you come up short. But it is a false humility, driven by Pride and Envy. You know you will never follow in his footsteps nor will you ever be called upon to do so. Which means it is a nice, safe comparison to make, as we all would come up short when measuring ourselves against a saint, but it is a shortcoming none of us really mind anyway, as it is so removed from our own lifes.
    Which also explains the appeal of this measurement as a daydream. It is the glamour of the Romantic, in sharp contrast to all the little worries of everyday life, the nagging doubts anybody, Christian or not, has. To give in to it would be to take the easy way out, to walk away from all your responsibilities in the false security that you would be doing God’s will.
    My upbringing as a stiff, strict reformed protestant has taught me that both these attitudes are the result of false Pride, that a true Christian path is to take the responsibilities given to you by God and fulfil them to the best of your abilities.
    In your case Fred, that is to follow however humbly in Jesus own footsteps, by metaphorically overturning the tables of those who would make of his religion what the moneylenders amde of the the temple: a house where Mannon is worshipped, not God.
    That is a worthwhile goal, even for those who like me, no longer share your religion.

  15. I wouldn’t presume to say whether Bill was a schizophrenic, but I’m curious about why he gave up contact with his parents and why their religions were mentioned. He just couldn’t stand people in mainstream religions? All they wanted to talk about was that he should live more sensibly? They wanted him to go into treatment? They were awful people and more than he could handle?
    It just seems very odd.

  16. The amazing thing about St. Francis that gets left out of most modern retellings, because it’s a lot more controversial than being a whole-earth hippie, is his radical pacificism and attempts to dialogue with the leaders of Islam – going unarmed during the Crusades to negotiate over POWs and present your people’s side of the religious story, show that there’s more to it than the Dominicans, is a hell of a lot braver than any of our “nuke the heathens!” chickenhawks could ever be in their most Stallone-Gibson-Norris-influenced fantasies.

  17. I subscribe to a theory similar to bandage-rolling, except mine is that someone has to make the sandwiches while everyone else is out manning the barricades. I try to make the sandwiches, deliver them, and pick up the garbage on my way back.

  18. Pablo: Great! Can I win admiration by praying for people instead of, you know, doing anything useful for them?
    From “A Little Princess” (1995):
    “It’s a cruel, nasty world out there, and it’s our duty to make the best of it. Not to indulge in ridiculous dreams, but to be productive and useful. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
    “Yes, ma’am.”
    “…but I don’t believe in it.”
    “Don’t tell me you still fancy yourself a princess?! Good God, child, look around you! Or better yet, look in the mirror.”
    “I am a princess. All girls are. Even if they live in tiny old attics, even if they dress in rags, even if they aren’t pretty, or smart, or young. They’re still princesses. All of us. Didn’t your father ever tell you that? Didn’t he?!?”
    Pablo, like you, I doubt. I use the word “God” without knowing for sure if there is really a supernatural being up there, listening to our prayers. But I know that promptings appear in my heart that have a different quality from my usual fears and desires, and I know there was a man who lived on the streets and dressed in rags, and maybe he was crazy, perhaps even “schizophrenic”, but he touched the lives of the people around him, bringing comfort and peace and love. And I know he was a prince, just as you are, Pablo, even if you don’t know it yourself.

  19. Martin,
    One has to be careful about totally romanticizing St. Francis of Assisi. He started out his life as a snotty rich boy like so many of us today. His original goal was to ignore his father’s wish that he join the family business. He was to be filled with mischief, popular, well liked by those who we would call worldly; to pass time he fought in battles with rivaling cities. It seems that his capture around the age of 20 brought about his first turning point (as it did for St Ignatius Loyola). Facing the possibility of his death and judgment (he was sick at the time) he had an epiphany, though short lived. When the sickness faded, so did his resolve to the life he is known for. He became a military man, still thinking of earthly glory and fell sick again. He returned home to Assisi when prompted to during a dream. Even when he returned, he was still searching for his call his purpose in life. His first encounter with helping the poor (he gave the money he had to a leper) was not the totally joyful image we have of Francis’ work.
    I could go on for pages and pages (and there are many books on the subject) but to assume that a saint is to be overlooked or not revered because you see him as a man who did not struggle with God’s will, is to determine the life of a Saint by the two line summary of his life. I have found as a Catholic that the greatest of saints were the worst of sinners before God touched their lives. To discount their struggle is to discount their saintliness.

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